Everyone always talks about the importance of having a strong core, good core stability, good core activation...but what on earth is your core? And why is everyone so keen for you to have a good one?
To understand this question further we need to have a look at our anatomy. The core is made up of 4 key muscles that provide you with the ability to stand up against gravity, breathe effectively, retain bladder control and protect many of your key organs such as your kidneys, stomach, bladder and reproductive system. Without these muscles working closely together we would struggle with even basic tasks such as sitting up in a chair. These muscles are working tirelessly throughout the day at varying levels depending upon our activities. They are even working whilst we are sleeping!
This muscle sits just under the rib cage. It contracts and flattens as you breathe in to create a vacuum like effect in the chest, drawing air into the lungs. This muscle is very important as it allows you to take deep breaths right into the bases of the lungs which is much more beneficial for the body than apical breathing. If someone is not breathing with their diaphragm they will be apically breathing which is where you use the muscles around your neck and shoulders to pull the ribcage upwards to try and create that vacuum like effect, however it is much much less effective and very energy consuming. This might happen if we are stressed or upset or simply out of habit. This can sometimes be why people may experience pains in their shoulders, upper traps and neck at times when they are stressed a lot, as they are breathing apically and not from the diaphragm.
If you've ever done pilates before you will probably have heard the instructor tell you to 'tighten your trans abs or your TVA'. This muscle sits under the Rectus abdominis (which gives us our six pack if your lucky enough to have one!) and acts as a corset to all the organs in our body that are not under the rib cage such as the stomach, bladder, kidneys and reproductive organs. This muscle is so important to provide you with the stability against gravity whilst you sit and stand. It is a muscle that should be activated automatically but like all muscles if they are exercised they can become far more efficient and effective. An easy way to tell how good your Trans Abs are is by looking at your stomach whilst you do any abdominal work out. So for example if you lie on your back and lift both legs in the air. As you slowly lower both legs towards the floor does your stomach remain flat or does it 'dome' and pop outwards? If it is flat then congratulations you have a great activation of your trans abs! If it domes it means that the strength or control of the Trans Abs is not as good and your body is just increasing the pressure around your organs to 'splint' the Trans Abs to create that contracted feeling. It is like blowing air into a balloon. Originally the surface of the balloon was stretchy, once the air has been pushed into it, it causes the surface of the balloon to be much harder. It is not the surface of the balloon that is creating that solid feeling but the air underneath that has pushed it into a position that is more sturdy.
Your pelvic floor is like a sling from the front of your pelvis to the back of your pelvis to hold all your organs in your body. A common myth is that only women have a pelvic floor but in fact it is in both men and women, women just have more issues surrounding the pelvic floor because of pregnancy and child birth. The pelvic floor works very closely with the Trans Abs and they will activate each other to a certain degree if the other is activated. Having a strong pelvic floor can improve bladder control and in certain cases during and after pregnancy reduce pelvic pain.
These are small muscles that run up your spine to give the spine support when standing up tall. When you have back pain you might find these muscles are very tight in your lower back on either side of your spine. The reason for this is that it is an automatic response from the brain to provide the spine with extra support when it feels there is a pain from that area. The downside to this technique is that it makes the lower back very stiff and therefore very uncomfortable. It is similar to if you have been sat down for a long time and then stand up, your knees may be a little sore and achey because they have not been moved for a long time. The same principle remains for the lower back when the muscles are tight and therefore it can creates that dull ache within the back. Some research has shown that my strengthening the rest of the core, it will support these back muscles so they don't have to be as tight and therefore less uncomfortable for you.
So in summary having an effective and strong core is so important to help reduce your risk of having a relapse in your back pain, improving bladder control, reducing stress around the shoulders and neck, improve your balance and generally improving your fitness levels in order to take on harder challenges in your chosen activity. Remember the core muscles are there for stability, endurance and to work together. They are not there to provide much movement. So any activity you do to train your core must be done slowly, with technical accuracy and multiple repetitions to build the endurance. Pilates is a great way to learn how to activate your core and providing challenging exercises to work it.
There are not many activities where your core is not activated, so this is why it so important to have a strong, efficient and effective core!